Ten years ago I stayed in a Chan Buddhist temple in China for four months. Frequently we’d eat miàn lún and yóu miàn jīn, two very similar but differently cooked vegetarian meat substitutes. I found it curious that those on a vegetarian diet would even want to mimic the taste and flavour of meat. As it turned out, those foods were donated to the temple and, in any case, they were very high in protein so made a valuable contribution to the diet. Subsequently these foods slipped my mind for 8 years until 2 Septembers ago.
At that time whilst attempting to live entirely on wild foods for a prolonged period, I wondered how to make noodles and bread from foraged ingredients that I had processed into flour: reedmace rhizomes, arum tubers, acorns, alexanders root, sweet chestnuts, conkers, rosehip seeds, and various other roots and seeds; crumbly biscuits and pastry where relatively easy, but to increase the interest of and, hence, range of cooked foods that I could eat, a more stretchy and elastic dough was required. All genuinely wild roots, nuts and grains found growing in the UK lack gluten, the sticky and stretchy glue- like (hence the name) protein of wheat grain that makes the production of so many noodle and bread varieties possible. At first I used concentrated wild harvested Chondrus crispus seaweed extract (carrageenan). Acorn flour or cooked and mashed acorns (after tannin extraction), mixed with this to form a wet dough (then gently cooked in a pan if using raw acorn flour) and rolled out flat between 2 pieces of cling film can then, after a little drying and chilling, be cut into noodles. They also retain their structure and texture on reheating. However, this was labour intensive and carrageenan didn’t work well in leavened (raised) bread. To that end I foraged plenty of feral or, at least, escapee wheat grain, ground it up and rinsed out the starch to leave the chewing gum- like gluten extract: bread making results improved but the whole process was labour intensive and wasteful. Then I recalled my temple experience.
I researched miàn lún. It’s cooked gluten, also more commonly known in the West as seitan or wheat meat. You can buy it pre-prepared, often canned, as mock duck or pork. More to the point, the pure dried powder can be purchased relatively cheaply: approx £18 for 5kg; not bad for an 80% protein food of amazing versatility. Its value for camping or trekking can’t be over stated. When combined with wild foods endless magical possibilities lie in store for those willing to experiment and get creative. Here I just want to introduce you to a couple of breads and some seitan dishes.
Top tip before you proceed: Some of the foraged ingredients worked with below involve considerable time and effort to collect and process. If new to working with unusual bread ingredients and gluten flour it’s best to hone your skills on easier to come by ingredients first. Last autumn, when I discovered gluten flour, I spent a whole week using it in the experimental production of loaves using rice, oat, and potato flour – usually delicious in themselves. Initially, though, some loaves where too dry (I made a feature of that dryness by slicing them thinly and drying further to make crisp breads). Water content then is critical to produce a good moist loaf. After kneading well for a few minutes, it’s often worthwhile flattening out the dough, making lots of indents with your fingers, pouring over ¼ cup or so of warm water and working it in.
Speaking of blood pudding, which is perhaps the epitome of a non-vegy food, for meat eaters, wheat meat has the distinct advantage of making meat dishes go further. For instance, this month I poached (cooked not stolen!) a whole large pike, and also pot roasted a couple of venison joints. I found that if the juices left over from cooking these things was reduced down to double concentrate it, and used as the liquid content when making up the wheat meat, then I could enjoy the pike and venison for a second time in a high protein form without them actually being there!